Israel’s Gaza Offensive: An Explainer
A closer look at an operation that killed dozens of Palestinians.
A Palestinian family stands on the rubble of a destroyed building in the latest round of fighting between Israel and Palestinian militants, Gaza, August 9th, 2022
Last Friday, Israel launched a three-day aerial offensive on Gaza—which it called “Operation Breaking Dawn”—by bombing an apartment building in Gaza City in order to assassinate Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) commander Tayseer al-Jabari. The first wave of bombings that day also hit PIJ militant watchtowers; among the casualties on Friday was a five-year-old girl, Alaa Abdullah Riyad Qaddoum, who was killed by an airstrike on a group of people gathered outside a mosque. According to the United Nations, by the time Israel and PIJ declared a ceasefire on Sunday, 360 Palestinians had been injured and 46 had been killed, including 16 children.
The operation was Israel’s deadliest attack on Gaza since its 11-day assault in May 2021, which principally targeted Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist political movement that governs the territory. Last May, Hamas fired rockets in response to Israeli raids on the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. This time, however, Hamas was not involved militarily, leaving the fighting to PIJ—a group with roots in the Muslim Brotherhood that currently receives backing from Iran—whose fighters fired over 1,000 rockets and projectiles at Israel in response to the aerial attacks. Most of the rockets were shot down by Israel’s anti-missile Iron Dome defense system and no Israelis were killed, though 70 were injured.
While Israel said the operation’s aim was to halt a planned attack by PIJ, the bombings inflicted damage far beyond the armed faction, spreading terror across the Gaza Strip. An Israeli military assessment claimed that a third of the Palestinian casualties resulted from misfired PIJ rockets, an evaluation that Associated Press reporters corroborated. The assault further traumatized a population that has undergone waves of Israeli attack and invasion since 2005, and has lived for 15 years under a blockade that effectively traps them in the 360-square-kilometer territory.
To answer your questions about the Israeli attack, the international response, the impact on Palestinians in Gaza, the possible implications for Israeli politics, and more, we’ve put together this explainer. It originally appeared in the Jewish Currents email newsletter (subscribe here).
Why did Israel bomb Gaza?
Israel’s attack has its roots in events outside the Gaza Strip. Between March and May, a series of attacks by Palestinian militants took the lives of 18 people in Israel, most of whom were civilians. In response, Israeli forces launched a crackdown throughout the West Bank to target armed Palestinian groups, arresting hundreds of Palestinians and killing dozens in a series of raids that were frequently described as a form of collective punishment. So far this year, according to the Palestine Prisoners Society, Israeli forces have killed at least 30 Palestinians from the West Bank city of Jenin alone—a focus for the Israeli military because the Jenin area was home to three of those responsible for carrying out attacks within Israel. (After a shooting attack in Tel Aviv, Israel also imposed temporary economic sanctions on Jenin residents for several days in April, closing off the city to Palestinian citizens of Israel who shop there and banning Jenin residents from visiting relatives in Israel.) In May, Palestinian American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh was killed by Israeli soldiers while covering a military raid in Jenin. The city has long been a center of Palestinian armed resistance, with a variety of factions—from PIJ to Hamas to the Fatah-affiliated Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade—maintaining a presence, especially in the Jenin refugee camp, which was established after Palestinian residents of Haifa and surrounding villages were driven out of their homes during the 1948 Nakba, when an estimated 700,000 Palestinians were expelled by Israeli forces or fled from their homes in fear.
On August 2nd, Israel arrested Bassem al-Saadi, a PIJ commander in Jenin, who Israeli intelligence claimed had worked to “build a significant military force for the organization” in the area. (During the arrest operation, Israeli military forces killed 17-year-old Dirar al-Kafrini, whom PIJ also claimed as a member.) In response, PIJ—which has both a West Bank presence and a base in Gaza, where it’s the second-largest militant group after Hamas—threatened to retaliate. On August 5th, Israel closed the border between Gaza and Israel, which prevented Gazans from traveling to work or seeking medical care, and blocked the import of fuel for Gaza’s only power plant. Israel also closed roads near the Gaza Strip. On Friday, Israel launched the attack that killed al-Jabari. PIJ then began firing rockets at Israel in response.
Israel has officially claimed that the attacks were intended to ward off an “imminent threat,” and its allies have argued that by bombing Gaza, the country was “defending its people against indiscriminate rocket attacks,” in the words of President Joe Biden. Yet Israel initiated its strikes before PIJ launched any rockets. “The Israeli government has claimed there was a threat from armed groups, but has not substantiated or proven what that threat was,” said Omar Shakir, Israel and Palestine director at Human Rights Watch. “It raises the question of why Israel chose to unleash this round of escalation.” Some have speculated that Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid initiated the assault to burnish his security credentials going into Israel’s November elections, where his center-left party will attempt to hold onto power against a right-wing bloc.
Even if the motivations for this attack weren’t completely clear, Mouin Rabbani, a Middle East analyst and co-editor of the publication Jadaliyya, said the operation was fundamentally consistent with the long line of Israeli assaults on Gaza that have sought “to remind the Palestinians who is boss, cut them down to size, and take out a few targets that [Israel] thinks are getting overly ambitious.” The bombing campaign, then, should be seen as part of Israel’s “mowing the lawn” strategy, said Menachem Klein, an Israeli political scientist; the phrase describes Israel’s approach to suppressing armed groups in Gaza by periodically waging short military operations that degrade Palestinian militants’ ability to fire at Israel. “The assumption in the Israeli establishment is that we are destined to manage a mini-war or campaign once in a while against the Gaza Strip,” said Klein, and that “there is no political solution on the horizon.”
Avner Gvaryahu, co-director of Breaking the Silence, a group of former soldiers that raises awareness about Israeli human rights abuses, said that the “mowing the lawn” approach includes not just assassinations but also demolition of Gazan infrastructure. “If you go in every year and destroy homes, you’re making sure that the civilian population will need Israel as the occupier to once again rebuild the neighborhood we destroyed—and you’re showing the civilian population who is in control,” he said.
To what extent did Lapid’s election prospects factor into the attacks?
Experts disagree on how much the timing of Israel’s elections may have influenced Lapid and Defense Minister Benny Gantz’s decision to attack. Rabbani said Lapid’s electoral ambitions should not be ruled out as a factor. “These aren’t the first threats that have been directed at Israel” in recent months, he told Jewish Currents. “I find it difficult to explain why now, and why in this specific circumstance, the Israeli government launched this extensive bombing campaign and high-profile assassinations, without noting that both the Israeli prime minister and the Israeli Defense Minister are [running in] what promises to be a very difficult election campaign.”
Other analysts, such as Israeli public opinion expert Dahlia Scheindlin, are skeptical that electoral politics was a significant factor. “It’s more in the interest of leaders to show that things are stable on their watch,” she said, though she agreed that the operation “contributes to Yair Lapid looking capable.”
The first election polls published after the Gaza operation found little change in how the right-wing bloc and center-left coalition are faring. While the majority of Israelis thought Lapid handled the military campaign well, the polls found that neither the right nor the center-left blocs would win an outright majority if elections were held today. Ido Dembin, the executive director of liberal Israeli think tank Molad, pointed to another factor to explain why there would be no electoral gain for either side: The military campaign occurred too far out from the election to have much bearing on anyone’s electoral prospects. “So many things can happen over the next 10–12 weeks. There’s too much time left for this operation to have a significant impact,” he said.
What was the outcome of Israel’s military operation in Gaza?
On August 7th, a ceasefire between Israel and PIJ took effect. The terms were simple: no more Israeli bombings and no more PIJ rocket fire. PIJ claimed that Israel had also agreed to release two of its members from prison, including al-Saadi, a claim Israel swiftly denied. But Egypt, which mediated the ceasefire talks, is now reportedly working to broker the prisoners’ freedom.
In a televised address after the ceasefire was reached, Lapid and Gantz declared that Israel had achieved all its goals. “We have reached three achievements during Operation Breaking Dawn: removing the imminent threat from Gaza; maintaining our freedom of action in all arenas; and maintaining deterrence, while sending a clear message to our enemies in each of the arenas: Israel is determined to maintain its sovereignty and protect its citizens,” said Gantz.
Meanwhile, Gazans are dealing with the devastation of the latest attack. In addition to causing Palestinian deaths, Israeli airstrikes inflicted significant damage on infrastructure in Gaza, a territory already in need of rehabilitation from last May’s assault, as well as from three previous wars. According to the UN, Israeli bombings damaged nearly 2,000 homes, displacing 84 families, as well as a hospital and an ambulance. For many Gazans, the continual cycles of destruction create a high psychological toll: “The Israeli aggression on Gaza is over, but we’re not okay, we’re exhausted and our hearts are broken,” tweeted Farah Baker, a 24-year-old Gaza-based social media activist. “We survived but we’re not alive.”
And while the ceasefire holds for now, the fundamental causes of repeated bouts of armed conflict in Gaza remain, chiefly Israel’s 15-year air, land, and sea blockade of the region, which traps most Palestinians in the territory, and which has decimated the coastal enclave’s economy. “The problem with the ceasefire is that it doesn’t end Israel’s violence against Gaza, which continues in different forms,” said Jehad Abusalim, the education and policy coordinator of the Palestine Activism Program at the American Friends Service Committee, who is from Gaza. “The ceasefire doesn’t mean that people have access to electricity, clean water, or freedom of movement. They don’t have these human rights, and that fact is at the core of the problem.”
The periodic outbreaks of violence are also fueled by the continuation of Israel’s 55-year military occupation of the Palestinian territories, and the system of apartheid that governs the region, privileging Israeli Jews over Palestinians. Rabbani said that, because the status quo for Palestinians remains, it’s only a matter of time before another war breaks out. “Israeli policy toward the Palestinians is unchanged,” he said. “And Palestinian organizations have shown that even when Israel is able to extract a high price for their resistance, that doesn’t deter them from continuing with that resistance. Nor did we see Palestinian public opinion turning decisively against PIJ for attacking Israel.”
What was Hamas’s role in the fighting this time?
Last year, when Israel attacked Gaza for 11 days in May in response to rocket fire from the territory, it was facing off against Hamas, the largest Islamist militant group in Gaza and its ruling party, which has greater military capabilities than PIJ. This year, Hamas stayed out of the fighting. (They did put out a statement condemning Israel’s attacks and saying, “The Palestinian resistance factions are united in this battle.”) Abusalim suggested that Hamas may have avoided involvement in part because, unlike PIJ, it is responsible for governing Gaza, and is therefore considering public opinion and its responsibility to Gazans, who are still recovering from the damage of Israel’s operation last May. “Hamas’s involvement would have dragged the escalation out for a longer period, given Hamas’s military capabilities, and Israel would’ve used that as a justification for further destruction of infrastructure, vital institutions, residential buildings, and businesses—and of course, a larger toll of civilian casualties,” he said.
Hamas also had an additional incentive to avoid engaging with Israel this time: Since last May’s fighting, Israel has offered 14,000 new permits for Gazans to work in Israel. “This was the sword they held over Hamas’s head, saying, ‘As long as this is a conflict with Islamic Jihad, the bones we threw you after last summer will continue to be provided, but if you get involved, all bets are off,’” said Rabbani. The New York Times reported yesterday that a senior Israeli official suggested the state plans to “step up the approach” of providing such permits in the future, given the tactic’s success in keeping Hamas out of the fighting. Gvaryahu said that Israel’s tactic of fighting PIJ while keeping Hamas at bay is part of a “divide and conquer” strategy, in which Israel plays Palestinian groups off one another.
How did the Biden administration and US politicians respond?
Despite the fact that Israel struck first, the Biden administration has hewed to the typical US policy line on its ally’s operations in Gaza. After Israel’s first attack on Friday, Israeli journalist Barak Ravid reported that a White House National Security Council spokesperson said that “Israel has the right to protect itself.” “Israel has defended its people from indiscriminate rocket attacks launched by the terrorist group Palestinian Islamic Jihad,” the White House said in a statement following the ceasefire, once again emphasizing its support. (The statement also expressed remorse for civilian casualties in Gaza and called for investigations into all reports of civilian deaths.) Among the various members of Congress who commented on the situation on Twitter, most—whether Democratic or Republican—took a similar stance, reiterating support for Israel’s right to self-defense and celebrating Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system, which the US helps fund and which blocked most of the rockets from Gaza. One exception was Rep. Rashida Tlaib, the only Palestinian American in Congress, who tweeted on Monday, “The lives of the Palestinian people are not disposable. The fact that our country continues to ignore & fund the aggressive violence and killing of Palestinian lives, especially children just enables more death.”
“I think the US response has been shameful,” said Shakir, who pointed out that the US is “not just a bystander” in the conflict, since it provides Israel with military assistance to the tune of $3.8 billion a year. He argued that the US response ignores the context “of an advanced occupying army dropping heavy munitions on a densely populated sliver of land on a population that’s been caged for years, deprived of their basic rights” and consists of “empty platitudes with little relation to reality on the ground.”
The bombing of Gaza came just three weeks after Biden made his first presidential visit to Israel, during which, as Jewish Currents Contributing Editor Joshua Leifer reported, he did not call on Israel to go to the negotiating table with Palestinians. Leifer quoted Hagai El-Ad, executive director of the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem, describing Biden’s policy toward Israel as a “continuation” of that of his predecessor, Donald Trump.
Mari Cohen is associate editor at Jewish Currents.